A Dollop of Chinese Culinary Wisdom for the Foodie Soul
~ By Charmaine Mirza
…Drink your milk for strong teeth and bones!
…Rice makes you fat!
…Chinese food is greasy!
Yes, we know, we’ve all heard these age-old foodie adages have been drummed into our heads since our childhood, but recent research and the overwhelming evidence from China and other Asian countries suggests that some of these mantras may actually be myths! Now we don’t want to stir up a controversy, but let’s peel back the layers that surround some of the more common food dos and don’ts, and separate the wheat from the chaff — chop chop!
The Myth: Drink cow’s milk and eat dairy for calcium, in order to prevent osteoporosis and increase bone density.
The Mantra: While milk is a good source of calcium, several studies have shown that the people who drink cow’s milk regularly are more prone to several lifestyle diseases — including osteoporosis. Cow’s milk is high in hormones and rich in lactose, and excessive consumption can lead to lactose intolerance or a hormonal imbalance. Depending on your gene pool, you may not even be able to digest cow’s milk, and it can trigger more health issues, than prevent them.
In China, drinking cows milk is a new phenomena. Up until the the 1990’s cows milk was scarce to find. Infact, the Chinese find their calcium primarily in vegetables and beans like bok choy and soybean. There are far fewer occurrences of breast cancer, osteoporosis and even type II diabetes, than in other parts of the world.
The Myth: Rice makes you fat.
The Mantra: In Southern China, rice is a staple in fact one of the most common statements to ask when meeting a friend is have you eaten 你吃饭了吗？Nǐ chī fàn le ma？ Essentially translated at have you eaten rice? Yet, many Chinese are not obese. The reason being that rice is eaten in much smaller quantities, making the carb content easy to burn off with regular exercise. Also, in most parts of China, rice is eaten at the end of a meal, to fill ones stomach if the vegetable and meat eaten before it wasn’t sufficient to fill the belly.
The Myth: Fungus is bad for your health
The Mantra: Believe it or not, some fungi are extremely good for you. The Chinese have tuned into these natural fungal foods for centuries. In fact, certain fungi like the Cordyceps and Black fungus that grow in the mountainous wilderness of China, have terrific medicinal properties. Black fungus, also known as cloud ear fungus, oozes nutritional goodness from every pore. It is chockfull of protein, carbs, healthy fats, a natural source of sodium, good cholesterol and also has excellent prebiotic properties to improve gut health and flora.
The Myth: Soy causes cancer
The Mantra: To the Chinese, who consume large quantities of soy in the form of tofu, this might seem rather absurd. But there could be hormonal and genetic predispositions, as well as preparation techniques, that make soy foods more digestible by some people, than others. In China, several sources of soy are commonly eaten on a daily basis. However, some of these are fermented to make them easier to digest, while others are fermented — so while tofu is unfermented soy, soy sauce is a fermented variation.
The fact remains that soy is nutrient-dense and an excellent source of protein. But it’s equally important to keep in mind that Soy is rich in isoflavones, which are a kind of plant oestrogen, very similar to oestrogen found in the human body. Isoflavones bind themselves to oestrogen receptors in our bodies, and can impact oestrogen’s activity in the body, so it depends on each person’s unique hormone levels, and whether the combined anti-oestrogenic activity triggered by eating soy food, is excessive or not.
The Myth: You have to eat red meat to build muscle
The Mantra: On the contrary. In traditional Chinese cooking, there is minimal red meat used. Fowl, fish and protein rich insects are more popular, depending on which part of China you are in, but contrary to popular belief — and every Chinese takeout menu — pork, lamb and beef are eaten in far smaller quantities than one might imagine.
The Myth: It’s dessert…how can it be healthy?
The Mantra: Despite the fact that refined white sugar originated in China, the Chinese rarely put sugar in their dessert. Infact, dessert is a Western construct and most Eastern nations tend to finish their meals off with fruit instead. More recently, desserts made of bean pastes have become popular during both festivals and large gatherings. India with its burgeoning population of diabetics, should take a note out of China’s dessert book.
The Myth: Don’t eat it… there’s a dead cockroach in your soup!
The Mantra: In China, and several other parts of SE Asia, there’s an ancient culture of eating insects, known as Entomophagy. Insects are extremely protein-rich, even more so than fish. They also contain a lot less fat, making them far healthier to eat than beefsteak. Entomophagy may have far reaching benefits both for our health, as well as for the environment, and is slowly gaining global traction. Insects can also help to balance out food security issues in many parts of the world.
Insects are cheap, reproduce in large volumes, don’t require much space to cultivate, and are apparently, quite delicious.
From water bugs cooked in salt water, to deep fried scorpions, the Chinese have no qualms about eating nature’s bounty. In fact, bugs in their larval state are considered an absolute delicacy, so the next time you’re served fried silkworm moth larvae or roasted honey bee larvae, do keep in mind that it’s full of copper, iron, riboflavin, thiamin and zinc. In fact, an ant in your soup, will probably help to keep you warm on those cold winter nights, and wild black ants have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for years to reduce fatigue and boost immunity.
The Myth: You can’t be vegan in China
The Mantra: Says who? From bamboo shoot to cucumber, eggplant to veggie porridge, there are several popular recipes in traditional Chinese cooking that make it easy to be vegan. You’ll also find several tofu preparations as well as a wide variety of noodle-based dishes. Peanut and sesame are also popular ingredients, and you might find several recipes that include a peanut or sesame sauce. Veggie congee is another extremely nutritious and low calorie meal that tastes delicious, and is absolutely vegan friendly.
The Myth: Chinese food is greasy
The Mantra: Eating according to a traditional Chinese diet is actually one of the healthiest ways to nourish your body. Even though a lot of Chinese food is stir-fried, you may be surprised to learn that the Chinese use a very small quantity of grease. This is simply because there is less fat available in China, as compared to India, where a lot of our foods tend to be deep-fried.
The Chinese have mastered the art of balancing out hot and cold foods, in order to nurture Qi in the body. They also utilize various parts of vegetables and animals that are known to boost specific nutrients which your body requires. Eat according to your body requirements is an old adage, which is is a big part of China’s culinary philosophy.
Nourishing the body with good food, which is both wholesome and healthy, is intrinsic to the Chinese way of life.